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Concern grows in Haiti over lack of progress in assassination investigation

Nearly a month after the assassination of Jovenel Moïse, human rights advocates and international observers say the investigation has become a confusing web of accusations and denials. Despite the FBI's help, many are losing faith that the truth will come out. (Leer en español)
3 Ago 2021 – 12:41 PM EDT
Haiti's Police Director General Leon Charles walks in the streets after a press conference in Cap-Haitien, July 22, 2021. Crédito: VALERIE BAERISWYL/AFP via Getty Images

Despite more than 40 arrests by police, no formal charges have been made against any of the suspects in the case, and allegations of violations of due process are piling up, including access to legal representation for those in custody.

Some observers worry the missteps in the investigation could create even more tension in the politically volatile nation that is plagued by armed gangs who control large parts of the country.

Various threats against judicial officials handling the case have been reported and no mastermind or motive has been revealed so far, despite the expert assistance of U.S. agents from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), who have declined to comment on their progress.

“We hope that the investigation doesn’t go on forever,” said Jacky Lumarque, Rector of the Quisqueya University in Port-au-Prince, speaking during an online forum organized by the InterAmerican Dialogue in Washington. “We also hope that the FBI assistance in the investigation will make a difference … Don’t underestimate the need for justice or the people’s anger at injustice,” he added.

Gang leaders have threatened violence if the guilty are not quickly brought to justice. Already the beach home of one of the suspects was looted and burned.

Moise was shot 12 times in his bedroom after armed men got into his official residence in the early hours of July 7, also wounding his wife.

Evidence tampering

Under Haitian law suspects are supposed to be charged within 48 hours or released, and the failure to do so could get in the way of any future trial. There are also allegations of evidence tampering before investigators were able to get to the crime scene.

Despite the presence of security cameras, and a number of witnesses, including the president’s own security detail, the identity of the Spanish-speaking gunmen has not been disclosed by the investigating authorities.

Among those in detention are 18 Colombians - mostly ex-soldiers - accused of being hired to carry out the killing, two of the president’s security chiefs, an evangelical pastor who resides in Florida and a former Haitian policeman turned DEA informant.

Police are looking for several other suspects, including a former senator, a Ministry of Justice official, a Supreme Court justice and a drug trafficker who was also a DEA-informant. Three other Colombians were killed by Haitian police as they made their getaway.

Not everyone is completely reassured by the presence of U.S. law enforcement expertise.

On Friday, the Colombian government called on Haiti to respect the legal rights of its Colombian nationals and to ensure they receive medical attention.

Lack of skills, resources

“The lack of investigative skills, no resources to speak of and the probable involvement of security forces and government officials make this an incredibly difficult web to untangle,” said Luis Moreno, the former U.S. acting ambassador to Haiti.

“There is the possibility of drug links and undoubtedly, corruption. Without some international commission with some teeth, I don’t see the investigation going very far,” he added.

Asked about the concerns over the state of the investigations, the U.S. State Department told Univision that the Biden administration was focused “on assisting the Haitian government with the investigation … determining who is culpable, and supporting the Haitian government as it seeks to hold those responsible accountable.”

“The Haitian people deserve justice for the assassination of the President. Accountability for the perpetrators would be an important factor in strengthening the rule of law and Haiti’s democratic institutions,” the statement added.

Special Tribunal

The Haitian government has called for U.S. troops to help provide stability during the investigation, which the Biden administration has resisted. Some Haitians, including Moise’s widow, Martine Moise, have called for the creation of a United Nations Special Tribunal to take over the investigation, similar to that carried out in Lebanon after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

“Reinforcement of the investigation is urgently needed,” said Bianca Shinn-Desras, a social justice advocate married to Simon Desras, former Haitian Senate president and the current Minister of Planning and Foreign Cooperation.

She also said the Haitian and U.S. governments need to share more information about the investigation to reassure public opinion. “The Haitian people deserve a proper investigation. They have never seen that and don’t know what an appropriate, ethical investigation, looks like,” she said.

Unlike U.S. investigations, like the Jan 6 assault on the Capitol, which tend to be exhaustive and painstaking, often taking months, it’s hard to ask Haitians for patience after their president was assassinated.

“They say it will take time. But when Haitians hear time they think it will never be solved,” she said recalling previous investigations, that never identified the culprits.

Lack of functioning judiciary

Despite years of international training and financial assistance, the Haiti’s judiciary remains the country’s “poorest functioning institution,” according to the U.S. government’s annual evaluation of law enforcement.

The State Department’s annual human rights report on Haiti, published in March found that the judiciary was “subject to corruption and outside influence”. It also noted that “the government rarely took steps to prosecute government and law enforcement officials accused of committing abuses.”

Impunity was also driven by poor training and a lack of police professionalism, as well as “rogue elements within the police force allegedly having gang connections.”

“I don’t have any confidence. The judiciary is very corrupt and I don’t trust the police,” said Pierre Espérance, director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH). The case should have already gone before an investigating judge and formal charges filed by now, he said.

“The judiciary is taking too much time. At the rate they are going it will take months,” he added, noting that every witness statement is taking down in writing before being typed up.

Spider's web

Given those concerns, it’s not surprising perhaps that the Moise investigation is being hampered by threats and intimidation, making it even harder to see through the confusing spider’s web of accusations and denials by the Haitian police and some of the suspects.

Espérance said some judiciary officials had were forced into hiding saying their lives were threatened if they did not falsify evidence to protect some suspects and implicate others. They were also blocked from reaching the crime scene after police set up a perimeter around the residence for several hours, and later denied access to surveillance video from the president’s residence.

Among those in hiding is Carl Henry Destin, the justice of the peace who officially documented Moise's residence and corpse hours after his shooting.

The National Association of Haitian Clerks published an open letter saying two clerks, Marcelin Valentin and Waky Philostene, involved in the investigation were “subject to serious death threats in the performance of their duties." It called on the Ministry of Justice to guarantee their protection.

"Waky, they told you to stop going around searching peoples' houses in the president assassination case and you refused,” read one of the threats addressed to Philostene, according to the official documents. “You've been told to take out two names and you refused, we're watching you," it added.

According to the official complaint, one caller demanded information about the investigation and threatened Valentin with death if he refused to implicate two prominent Haitians - Reginald Boulos, a businessman, and Youri Latortue, a politician - by inserting their names into statements by the detained suspects.

After Valentin refused, he said, he began to receive death threats.

"Expect a bullet in your head"

“Clerk, you can expect a bullet in your head,” read a text message received by Valentin, according to a copy of a formal complaint that he filed with the prosecutor’s office.

Esperance added that some potential suspects – including the presidential guards present at the time of the assassination - have not been called in for questioning by the Judicial Police or the Public Prosecutor's Office.

At least 14 senior police officers have been placed under administrative orders to restrict their movements and prevent them from leaving the country. But only two have been formally arrested.

Worse still, more than forty police officers of the General Security Unit of the National Palace (USGPN), agents of the CAT Team and the SWAT Team, possibly potential witnesses in the assassination of Moïse, are reportedly missing, according to Esperance.

First Lady has doubts

Critics of the investigation say that none of the people in detention appear to have had the means to finance the plot on their own. The former First Lady, Martine Moïse, gave an interview to CNN on Sunday saying she believed there must be a mastermind behind it all who gave the orders and put up the money for the operation.

She said she could not understand how a small group of assassins people got past the 40 security personnel stationed at the president's home that night. None of them were killed or wounded in the attack.

She blames members of the country’s wealthy business elite who were upset after Moise canceled some lucrative contracts, while others believe it may have been drug trafficking interests.

"There are powerful people in Haiti. And because of their power, I'm not sure that the current investigation can find answers," she told CNN in an interview on Sunday.